Sunday, January 24, 2016

Whose Values Are They Anyway?

Unless you've been living under a rock lately (no offense to the iconic Spongebob character), you might have heard about the New York Values spat going on in the GOP primary contest. In truth, both sides of the controversy are right. Much like the proverbial elephant described by four blind men, New York values are impossible to narrowly define. Chances are good that a tough guy Queens firefighter will have different values from a Manhattan socialite or a small grocer in Brooklyn.

On second thought, maybe not. Maybe there are values that go beyond social status, ethnic background, or even-gasp-politics.

I know what you're thinking. Politics is supposed to be all about a conflict of values. Yes and no. If we limit out discussion of values to what is loosely known as "social issues," then politics does divide us along those lines. But what if we drop the specifics and think bigger? What if we go to the fundamentals of human existence? Then it all becomes significantly less clear.

For example, is there a political ideology that "owns" the concept of human greatness? Absolutely not. People have created and cherished heroes, real or imagined, more or less from the beginning of time. Different cultures have glamorized various traits (strength, cunning, bravery, loyalty) and archetypes (warrior, protector, rebel, explorer). However, these representations of the human ideal have always existed, even in the darkest, most oppressive societies. The detail of the stories had been molded to serve a particular ideology, but the spirit behind them remained startlingly similar.

That brings me to a point tat has puzzled me for quite a while, ever since I started venturing into the various corners of the Internet related to storytelling. As I interacted with fellow readers, I realized that while we liked and responded to the same stories, many of us did not see eye to eye on pretty much anything else.

In my online travels (before I had discovered the more parochial sections of social media, where people mostly stick to groups of their own worldview), I have encountered the following:

Dean Koontz fans who were extreme environmentalists, claiming humans did not deserve special consideration as compared to animals and plant life.

Terry Goodkind fans who supported not only collectivism, but racial identity. (If I remember correctly, birth not being destiny is one of the "Wizard Rules" in the Sword of Truth series. If not, considering the male lead's origins, it was certainly implied throughout.)

At least one person who was in the process of reading and admiring Atlas Shrugged while telling everyone that the country was doomed (doomed, I tell you!) if Barack Obama did not get elected. I know many people claim to "outgrow" Ayn Rand, but I am talking of a new fan.

And then, of course, there was Firefly/Serenity, the one story that everyone had wanted to claim as supporting their own worldview, although how "Aim to Misbehave" could be interpreted away from libertarianism is quite beyond me.

I have pondered this seeming disconnect for a few years now, the way people respond to certain themes in fiction while rejecting them in real life and politics. Upbringing might have something to do with it since so many get their politics from family influences, but choose entertainment on their own. But it could be simpler than that. It could be that in spite the proliferation of relativism and nihilism in popular culture, there are parts of the human psyche that remain untouched and undamaged. Maybe there are indeed themes of universal appeal that cannot be taken away by modern trends. Maybe there is still a way for our increasingly splintered society to reconnect around them. I don't know, but I intend to keep searching in that direction.

As a life long political junkie, it might be hard for me to admit, but in the long run, politics won't fix our society. (Neither will it break it, even though things are looking temporarily bleak on that front). Re-discovering our basic human values and aspirations is a more sure bet, and stories that address big themes and timeless ideals could be one path to get there. There is no guarantee it would work. However, we could have a whole lot of fun trying. At the risk of setting a ridiculously low bar, it sure beats the heck out of watching the evening news.

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